Chancellor Angela Merkel has praised Belgium and the EU yesterday (28 October) at a ceremony commemorating the First Battle of Ypres. German troops marched into Belgium 100 years ago, during the first year of the Great War.
On 19 October, 1914, near the Belgian city of Ypres, Allied and German forces begin the first of what would be three battles to control the city and its advantageous positions on the north coast of Belgium during the First World War. The second battle of Ypres is generally remembered today as marking the first use of chlorine gas by the German army.
Merkel praised Belgium for national officials’ constant willingness to extend the hand of friendship to Germany, noting that the small European kingdom was the “one of the very first” to embrace reconciliation after World War II.
She said that the very fact that she had been invited to the commemoration was significant.
“Taking into account everything that has taken place, all the suffering inflicted by the Germans to the Belgians over the two World Wars […] this invitation is not something that could be taken for granted”, she said.
The German Chancellor spoke of the “immeasurable sacrifice” brought about by World War I, and said that all sides “cannot but be grateful for how much has changed since.”
Merkel also took the opportunity to recognize the work of the European Union, headquartered in Brussels, in preventing such “terrible wars”. The EU, Merkel said, stands for “freedom, democratic values and respect for international rights.”
She also made reference to the use of chlorine gas during the second battle of Ypres, saying that Germany had crossed “a new threshold of cruelty”.
French Minister of Defence Jean-Yves Le Drian represented his country at the commemoration. He highlighted the “message of peace” that comes with the commemorations. They are designed to “bring together the warring parties in 1914 around a common ideal, that of a united Europe, that of peace, which is never achieved once and for all”, he stated.
Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel said the world today was very different from the one of 1914, but that there was still a tendency to slip into conflicts causing the suffering of men, women and children. “Peace has a price and requires investment on the part of everyone. We have a responsibility to maintain the dialogue between peoples. Let’s fight selfishness and extremism,” Michel stated.
The Belgian press made the observation that no minister representing N-VA, the separatist Flemish political force which is part of the coalition government, has been present at the commemoration.
Belgium’s King Philippe and Queen Mathilde were also in attendance, as well as many other international guests. The royal couple stated that taking part in the memorial was “a special honor” for them, particularly in light of the suffering Belgians faced at the hands of Germans over two world wars.
The guests paid tribute to King Philippe’s great-grandfather, King Albert, known as “the soldier King”, at his monument near Nieuwpoort. This memorial, which has just been renovated, was erected in 1938 to commemorate the King’s role in the First World War, and most particularly his decision to stay with the troops and defend his country’s soil during the Battle of the Yser.
To stop the advance of the Germans, thousands of acres of farmland around Nieuwpoort had been submerged for four years.
The commemorations this year of the centenary of World War I – still known as the “Great War” – are likely to reawaken the memories of a hesitant and divided Europe, reminiscent of its current handling of the Ukraine crisis. World War I began on 28 July 1914 and lasted until 11 November 1918. More than nine million combatants were killed. It was the fifth-deadliest conflict in world history, paving the way for major political changes, including revolutions in many of the nations involved.
At the 19 December 2013 EU summit, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that she had read the book The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, by Australian historian Christopher Clark.
“They [the European countries’ leaders] failed everything, and this brought World War I," she said.
- Government of Belgium: Commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the First World War